Commission calls for federal government compensation for riverbank dwellers affected by hydroelectric dams in Rondônia

Iury Lima – Cenarium Magazine

VILHENA (RO) – The Brazilian government has three months, starting in December, to explain to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) the impacts generated by the hydroelectric plants of the Madeira complex in Rondonia, formed by the Jirau and Santo Antônio plants, installed in Porto Velho. The lawsuit was motivated by the environmental setbacks and damage caused to about 60 families from the riverine community of Cujubinzinho, 35 kilometers from the capital of Rondônia.

The complaint was filed in 2015, detailing to the CIDAH, the recurrence of omissions by the federal government, since the construction of the electric complex on the most important river of Rondônia to the impacts generated until today, in addition to the omission of the Brazilian judiciary. Since then, almost 50 complaints have been filed on behalf of the community that was not considered in the environmental studies conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), for the installation of the plants.

Residents of the Cujubinzinho community in Rondônia were neglected by the Executive and Judiciary before, during and after the installation of the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams. (Reproduction/Government of Rondônia)

The Inter-American Commission is the main institute of the Organization of American States (OAS), which works with the objective of observing and promoting the defense of human rights, in an advisory capacity. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, on the other hand – where the case should stop if there is no position from the federal government – works as an autonomous Justice institution, applying and interpreting the parameters of the American Convention on Human Rights. 

Impacts of Neglect

Invisibilized before, during and after the installation of the hydroelectric dams, the population that lived on planting, fishing and selling products, now suffers the economic impacts, in addition to the environmental damage that ravages the ecosystem of the region, as told to the CENARIUM report, the law professor, researcher and pro-rector of the Federal University of Rondônia (UNIR), Neiva Araújo, who has accompanied the community of Cujubinzinho since at least 2013. 

“Even before the 2014 floods, they had already been suffering, including due to the rapid oscillation of the river, because here there is no monitoring and warning system for those communities. They were already complaining about the loss of boats and some influences of the river, including on the condition of the water. We identified, in some visits, that the water had a very strong smell and was not fit for consumption, and this situation worsened in 2014,” said Araújo, who also fights for the rights of other ‘invisible’ populations, through the research group Law, Territory & Amazonia (Diterra), linked to Unir.

“Many families who had some relative who lived in Porto Velho, or who lived in another locality, ended up migrating to stay close to these relatives, because the 2014 floods severely disrupted the entire social fabric that existed there. Other people who remain in the locality, kept on planting, but had difficulty moving their production because the road was also destroyed by the accumulation of sediments from the 2014 floods,” explained the specialist. 

Professor, researcher, and pro-rector of the Federal University of Rondônia (Unir), Neiva Araújo, is concerned about the lack of drinking water and subsistence conditions in the Cujubinzinho community. (Iury Lima/ Cenarium)

Another problem besides the unavailability of ideal water for consumption and hygiene is the food insecurity of the families. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and the recommendation is to wash hands frequently to avoid contagion, and these people don’t have access to quality water. The interference in the locality also ended up affecting both the quality of life and the economy, due to the fact that when there is a change in the dynamics of the river, there is also a change in the supply of fish, both in quantity and in the number of species. So the river, although it is right next door, will not necessarily provide the same amount of fish that they were used to”, said Neiva Araújo.

Changes in the Madeira are also affecting the availability of fish, one of the community’s main foods. (Neiva Araújo/ Reproduction)

Pre-admissibility

The process reached the stage of pre-admissibility this December, that is, the Brazilian State has a deadline to manifest, considering that the progress, appreciation of the case and judgment in the international court, depends on this position.  

The lawyer who filed the lawsuit with the Inter-American Commission, Gustavo Caetano, explained in an interview with CENARIUM that such a manifestation must be made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bolsonaro Government, Ambassador Carlos Alberto Franco França. “The Commission also provides in this subpoena that, if the Brazilian State believes in the possibility of a friendly solution, based on respect for human rights, it may do so”, Caetano explained. 

For the lawyer Gustavo Caetano, both the federal government and the judiciary in Rondonia have been remiss in relation to the 60 riverside families. (Iury Lima/Cenarium)

According to the expert, if the deadline is exceeded and if, in addition, the amicable solution of the conflict does not happen, the waiting time is extended for another month, as well as the implementation of new demands arises. “And the Commission may also summon the parties to a hearing and, if it deems it necessary, conduct an investigation in the community. Deliberations on the merits will be private and all aspects and discussions, confidential,” he added. After that, the deliberation on the merits and the finding – or not – of one or more violations takes place. “The Commission will prepare a preliminary report with the proposals and recommendations it considers pertinent and will transmit it to the Brazilian State. In this case, it will set a deadline for the State to inform about the measures adopted and the fulfillment of these recommendations”, he informed.

Finally, the Commission will notify the petitioners about the adoption of the report and its transmission to the country, according to Caetano. As Brazil is a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights, upon being notified, it receives the opportunity to present a position regarding the case and the referral to the International Court. “Then it [the process] leaves the sphere of the Commission and goes to the sphere of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This trial at the Court can issue a judgment that declares the international responsibility of the Brazilian State for the violation of one or more rights of the American Convention”, the lawyer added. 

Industrialized trial

For Caetano, who has sponsored about 47 lawsuits on behalf of Cujubinzinho through his own law firm, the state Judiciary has been negligent, besides judging the petitions in an “industrialized” manner, without paying due attention to the seriousness of the problem.

“We have a certain omission from the judiciary of Rondônia, which, unfortunately, has been judging these lawsuits in a mass, industrialized way. The judiciary is leaving much to be desired in the appreciation of the case by case, in the concrete part, in the appreciation of the evidence and in the analysis of the expert examinations that are being carried out”, denounced the lawyer.  

The lawsuits in the courts of the State of Rondônia are aimed at financial compensation, which, in the opinion of professor and researcher Neiva Araújo, does not solve the environmental devastation, but at least gives the riverside population some autonomy. “Financial compensation is only a way to educate the enterprises so that this does not happen, because it is always in the pocket that hurts and ends up having this educational effect. Even with compensation, you can’t go back to the status quo, to the situation they were in before. But this compensation, at the very least, should make it possible for them to buy property and start their lives over,” said the pro-rector of Unir and leader of the Diterra group.

“It is important that we have a minimum of empathy and put ourselves in the place of these populations, because they are used to a dynamic of life. There is, there, a whole daily life of fishing, extractivism (…) then, we take these people away from this condition to which they are used to without giving them the minimum conditions to start over. There has to be a balance in this relationship between the enterprise, the government and the impacted populations”, he pondered.  

The government of Rondônia is also to blame

As omissive as the federal government and Ibama, was the government of Rondônia, which did not intervene for the riverine community that is so close to the capital, where the Executive headquarters are located. Neiva Araújo simplifies the famous “blind eye” to the interest for profit.  

“The state government has a share of responsibility, too, at the moment when it is omissive. The federal government, through Ibama, is responsible for the whole licensing process due to the magnitude of the work, but the state government, as well as the municipal government [of Porto Velho], should act in ways to minimize these negative impacts. Many times, the state and municipal governments also delude themselves with promises of development and progress, which usually end up not materializing”, he pointed out. 

When we reach the final stage of these works, what we have is a negative impact that is much greater than the positive one; there is no longer that flow of resources that there used to be during the construction period and, then, these states and municipalities don’t have the conditions to work to minimize these impacts that were amplified. However, a reality that repeats itself not only in Rondônia, but all over Brazil is the lack of qualified personnel to meet these demands”, Araújo concluded. 

For the lawyer Gustavo Caetano, the omission is intrinsically linked to government policies at the federal level. “Unfortunately, the policy of invisibilization of these communities, especially in this government, has been very latent, and, in fact, the human rights violations of the riverside, extractivist, and indigenous communities, historically, have never reached such a high level. Other forces have to mobilize to combat this kind of policy and provide a democratic analysis, bringing these agendas out of the shadows. It is extremely important to preserve these cultures that, unfortunately, have been neglected and practically non-existent”, he concluded. 

 Besides Jirau and Santo Antônio, Rondônia has two other big hydroelectric power plants: the first, the Samuel Dam, built in the late 1980s on the Jamari River in the municipality of Candeias do Jamari, which stands out for being considered the first hydroelectric project in Brazil through environmental licensing. Another powerhouse is the Rondon II hydroelectric plant, in the south of the state, in the municipality of Pimenta Bueno, the only hydroelectric plant with licensing issued by the State Department of Environmental Development.

Once again, no answers

When contacted by CENARIUM MAGAZINE, Ibama and the Rondônia government did not provide any clarifications about the reports of omission, lack of assistance, and negligence in the environmental licensing studies for the installation of the projects.

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